Texas Paintings: "The Battle of San Jacinto" (1898)
Some of those senators didn’t know as much as a chicken about art. One senator said you could get photographs that big a lot cheaper.
Some six weeks after Texas won its independence, after eighteen minutes of fighting on a green pasture situated at the junction of the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou, Henry Arthur McArdle was born on the green isle of Ireland. From the time of his birth, on June 9, 1836, until his fourteenth year, Henry lived and studied in Belfast. But in that fourteenth year his parents died and he set sail for Maryland to live with an aunt in Baltimore. With a talent for drawing and painting, Henry studied art at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanical Arts, winning the prestigious Peabody Prize in 1860.
When the civil war engulfed the United States, McArdle lent his talents to the Confederate cause as a navy draftsman and cartographer. He later served on General Robert E. Lee’s staff in a similar position. At war’s end, he and his new bride, Jennie Smith, did what many boys and families displaced from a war-torn land did—he moved West. He settled in Independence, Texas. Not many years after arriving, however, Jennie died of consumption (tuberculosis). Two years later, McArdle married Isophene Lucy (Isis) Dunnington and started a family. They had five children: four sons and a daughter.
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McArdle worked for a time as an art teacher at Baylor Female College and painted portraits for paying customers, including a number of Civil War veterans who recounted battlefield exploits to the attentive artist. McArdle was particularly inthralled with the men of Hood’s Texas Brigade who lived through the brutality and terror that was the battle of the Wilderness. Their stories inspired McArdle to paint a scene from that battle: Lee at the Wilderness (1872)—McArdle’s first combat painting.
McArdle’s conversations with Texas war veterans struck more than just a cord for depicting Civil War battles. Those conversations also fed a growing interest in his adopted state’s rich history—especially its foundational and revolutionary history. A few years after painting Lee at the Wilderness, McArdle created two Texas-themed paintings: a heroic portrait of Stephen F. Austin titled, The Settlement of Austin’s Colony, sometimes called, The Log Cabin (1875), and the final assault of what has become known as Texas’s Thermopylae—Dawn at the Alamo (1875).
Unfortunately, only black and white photographs of Lee at the Wilderness and Dawn at the Alamo, survive. The originals were destroyed in the 1881 fire that ravaged the Texas State Capitol. McArdle was heartbroken over the loss.
Twenty years later, in his San Antonio studio, McArdle produced one of his most famous and beloved works—an eight foot by fourteen foot, oil on canvas diorama of the battle of San Jacinto. He began this work in 1895 and completed it in 1898.
Originally titled, The Battle of San Jacinto—Retributive Justice and the Triumph of Texas’ Independence, McArdle intended the work to be an accurate, dramatic, and poetic representation of that decisive eighteen-minute battle. The painting is aptly titled, not only because it captures what took place on Peggy McCormick’s pasture on April 21, 1836, along with its aftermath—independence realized after its declaration some two month prior, strikingly illustrated with the breaking of dark clouds to reveal a clear blue sky—but also because San Jacinto served as just requital for the barbaric treatment of the Alamo dead and the savage massacre of the Goliad prisoners.
As with Lee at the Wilderness, McArdle took meticulous care to get the details rights. With the assistance of military historian Reuben Marmaduke Potter, McArdle spent years researching the participants, armaments, uniforms, and battle strategy. He read first-hand accounts, interviewed San Jacinto soldiers, spoke with family members of deceased veterans, asking for portraits of their lost loved one, and visited the battlefield at least six times, taking measurements and photographing different features of the landscape—all before making a single brushstroke.*
The completed painting was displayed at the 1891 meeting of Texas War Veterans Association. A number of San Jacinto survivors were in attendance. They heartedly endorsed McArdle’s portrayal of the battle with a proclamation: “We the undersigned participants in the Battle of San Jacinto have [viewed] McArdle’s painting of said battle do hereby certify to its absolute historical truth.”
Standing in front of the painting as an eyewitness to the unfolding battle, you’re positioned at the southeastern end of the battlefield, looking northwest, with the San Jacinto River flowing in the background. The Texian army attacks the Mexican encampment from the west. In front of a brown tent in the middleground on the right, Mexican dictator and general Antonio López de Santa Anna, the self-styled “Napoleon of the West,” wearing a white sombrero and astride a black horse, retreats to the east—a brown mule trailing a lead rope follows behind and a black mule kicking its hind legs leads. According to McArdle’s notes, he included the two mules to show, “even [Santa Anna’s] mules have lost respect for him.”
Of the individual vignettes of clashing men, from which the battle is composed, McArdle was mindful to faithfully render notable Texians and Mexicans. He steered clear of depicting the Texians as courageous and the Mexicans as cowardly—besides that of Santa Anna—recording in his notes his admiration for the bravery of the combatants on both sides. One of the great depictions of Mexican bravery is General Manuel Fernandez Castrillón, who, left of center, in a blue uniform and a red sash across his breast, stands in the midst of the melee with his left hand on his scabbarded sword. Castrillón looks up at a rifle-wielding Texian, standing on the Mexican barricade, with his raised pistol aimed at the Texian’s chest.
Below and slightly to the right of the retreating Santa Anna, with arms upraised, waving his sword, is Colonel Manuel Romero, who vainly tries to stem what is about to become a rout.
The hero of San Jacinto, Sam Houston, is portrayed center left after having his sorrel horse shot from under him. Though the ball that killed his mount shattered his ankle, Houston stands with his white planter’s hat in his left hand and a sword in his right, urging his Texians to assault a small battery of rifleman forming behind a Mexican officer. An unnamed and unarmed aid, careless of his own life, holds a black horse by the bridle, motioning for his commander to mount.
Behind Houston, Secretary of War Thomas J. Rusk, riding a chestnut horse and pointing his sword, directs troops forward. At the bottom of the painting, left of center, Andrew Briscoe, with sword upraised and gazing directly at the viewer, encourages the Texians in their assault of the Mexican breastworks. Behind, and to the left of Briscoe, is Colonel Edward Burleson, wearing a blue jacket and firing his pistol on his rearing sorrel, leading the First Regiment against the Mexican center.
Anson Jones, who served as the last president of the Republic of Texas, was a private in the Texian army. He also served as the judge advocate and surgeon of the Second Regiment at San Jacinto. McArdle painted Jones along the bottom left edge of the canvas tending to a wounded solider.
James Sylvester, who is credited with capturing Santa Anna on the following day, is depicted atop the Mexican fortifications, hoisting the Sherman battle flag with one hand while firing his pistol with the other. The flag was brought to Texas by Sidney Sherman, who commanded the left wing of the Texian army and led a group of fifty-two volunteers from Kentucky. Sherman is credited with the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo.” His flag is depicted in McArdle’s painting with the image of a woman grasping a sword over which is draped a streamer with the words, “LIBERTY OR DEATH.” McArdle painted the flag based on descriptions provided by Sherman’s daughter and San Jacinto veterans. Their descriptions, however, varied. One said the flag was made of light blue silk with gold fringe. Another said the flag was made of the same light blue silk, but with blue fringe. And a third described the flag as being of white silk with gold trim, which it is. McArdle never saw the actual flag so painted the flag light blue with gold fringe.
In the foreground at the bottom right, sitting a sorrel horse with a white blaze and one white sock, is Deaf Smith thrusting his sword into the chest of Mexican officer Don Esteban Mora. Behind Smith is Texian Henry W. Kerns on a black horse, pointing a pistol and attempting to wrestle away a Mexican national flag belonging to the Matamoros Battalion, which saw fighting at three key battles during the Texas Revolution: the Alamo, Coleto Creek, and San Jacinto. Colonel Antonio Trevino, astride a white horse and holding the Matamoros flag, wields his sword in a slashing motion at Kerns. Colonel Trevino died that day.
Other notable Texians portrayed in McArdle’s painting include Mirabeau B. Lamar, who became the second president of the Republic of Texas, and Captain Juan Seguín, who had been at the Alamo but was dispatched by William B. Travis as a courier before the Alamo fell. Seguín’s small band of Tejano soldiers—those actually born in Tejas—are also depicted, including San Antonio native Lieutenant José Antonio Menchaca. He moves forward with a sword in his right hand, looking toward the viewer, in between Burleson’s rearing horse and the blond-headed Briscoe.
McArdle loaned The Battle of San Jacinto, along with his recreated Dawn at the Alamo (1905), to the state, to be hung in the Senate chamber of the Texas State Capitol. He hoped the state would purchase both paintings, but, despite the popularity of the works, he lacked the political savvy to close the sale. McArdle suffered financial hardships in his latter years, dying on February 16, 1908, in San Antonio, having never seen a dime from the state for either Dawn at the Alamo or The Battle of San Jacinto.
McArdle’s family, like the little Texian army under General Sam Houston, however, would not give up the fight for adequately compensated from the state for their father’s work, carrying the battle for nearly two decades. Finally, in 1927, the legislature voted to appropriate $25,000 as payment to McArdle’s estate for his notebook and both paintings—less than half of their appraised value. Ruskin, McArdle’s son, wrote in disgust: “Some of those senators didn’t know as much as a chicken about art. One senator said you could get photographs that big a lot cheaper.”
* McArdle’s son John Ruskin complied his father’s research and published it in a leather-bound book, which is housed in the Texas State Library and Archives.